The Salzburg Festival's Young Singers Project goes into its fourth edition this summer. As usual, about ten hand-picked artists from around the world will be reporting for several weeks of boot camp in the many disciplines that make up the kit of the singing actor. They will attend rehearsals of mainstage productions, often as covers for the marquee names. For a grand finale, they will appear in concert during the final week of the festival, presumably all set to wow the assembled talent scouts, professional and amateur. But as always their true trial by fire is apt to take the form of public master classes in the cavernous auditorium of the university.
Having followed the master classes for a while, I ask myself what real purpose they serve. From the public's point of view, the entertaining ones tend to profit the students little, while those that do profit the students are apt to lack sparks.
Salzburg being Salzburg, the Young Singers Project attracts a dazzling guest faculty; unsurprisingly, the events are packed. In my experience, the young singers vary considerably in star potential but never fail to display world-class sportsmanship.
They need it.
I never clocked the precious time frittered away by their masters' displays of self-congratulation, self-aggrandizement, and self-indulgence, but it added up to quite a bit. I think of Barbara Bonney and Michael Schade, the original directors, reminiscing about auditions at which they entreated applicants to the program to stop screaming and to sing softly instead. If Ms. Bonney was to be believed, the babes in the woods were invariably nonplussed. Supposedly, all their regular teachers ever asked of them was to pump up the volume. (Sure.)
I think of Thomas Quasthoff strafing the public early on because two or three patrons had arrived late, sneering at the diction of singers for whom his native German was a foreign tongue, and—for his encore—tearing the Chinese bass Shenyang limb from limb for what he diagnosed as a catastrophically misguided technique.
"Who is telling you to darken your voice like that?," Mr. Quasthoff demanded. "Who says to make the sound so heavy? Two more years of this, and I guarantee you will be finished. Finished." Maybe Shenyang—at the time the darling of kingmakers all around Lincoln Center—needed to hear this. But so brutally? And in public?
Happily, there are counterexamples. Coaching the class of 2008 in lieder of Brahms and Mahler, Christa Ludwig dispensed her critiques in occasionally humorous but unfailingly gracious fashion, leaving her love of the material to do the hard work. Mostly, one sensed her incontrovertible conviction that artistry takes a lifetime.
Joining the roster last summer, Thomas Allen delivered that same message in an impromptu bravura performance of his own."I was born Thomas Allen in Seaham Harbor, County Durham," he told one of his charges, "but that's just who I used to be. Now I'm Don Giovanni and Don Alfonso and Faninal and Beckmesser and all those other people I've had to become."
How would the Knight of the Woeful Countenance of Ravel's miniature song cycle "Don Quichotte à Dulcinée" serenade his lady while in his cups? Surely not with the Boy Scout decorum the first singer displayed that afternoon. Demonstrating, Mr. Allen reveled in brawling melismas and knock-kneed body language that made him seem a latter-day Falstaff next to a pipsqueak Bardolph. Later he acted a German soprano off the stage with a wistful impression of Massenet's Manon. That was after evoking a milkmaid with two left feet. That, he told her, was what she was doing. "I am?" she gasped, appealing to the audience with a grin. Give her points for good sportsmanship.
How long will it take for talent at this level to grow into the mastery of a Ludwig or an Allen? Who knows, but there was no sign of an imminent quantum leap. The work is slow. Last in the lineup and to my mind the most promising of Salzburg's young singers last summer was Andrè Schuen, an Italian baritone from the Southern Tyrol, who presented Ford's monologue from Verdi's Falstaff with a truthfulness of emotion that transcended tragicomic (or merely comic) bluster. Mr. Schuen's sound was noble, his diction incisive, leaving scant opening for didactic histrionics. Master that he is, Mr. Allen nevertheless saw where his junior colleague could press further. So he left off playing to the crowd, brought out the figurative magnifying glass, and focused on the basics that are also the fine points. "Ford asks whether this is a dream or reality," Mr. Allen said. "If it's a dream, what kind of a dream is it?"
Mr. Allen had turned a corner. From now on, the ears of third parties could only get in the way. The show was over. Time to get to work.